The recent business concerning the reentry of the Chinese Long March 5B booster over the weekend (no deaths, no known damage) triggers some further thoughts about space. (Especially since I failed to comment on the 60th Anniversary of Gagarin’s magnificent flight on 12 April 1961.)
When it comes to space exploration and the final frontier, government STINKS.
As a child of the 1960s I grew up fascinated by space travel. I don’t quite recall Yuri Gagarin’s and Alan Shepard’s first flights, but paid attention to American and Russia flights constantly. I recall the excitement of Eagle’s landing, and the others after that. And the incredible disappointment of the termination of the Apollo program. By then, I understood enough about government to understand why – which made for even more disappointment. Because I’d also grown up on Heinlein juveniles, I knew what could be done. But government, as usual, messed things up.
Recently, I found a book in my aunt’s library, published in that heady period between 1968 and 1972. It explained a modest (by my standards, at least) program of establishing a permanent colony on Luna. Not exactly what Clarke and Heinlein and so many others wrote of, but still something that inspired me and encouraged optimism about exploring God’s creation.
And that all in essence failed to materialize. Again, thanks to government then and since. Not just American government: Soviet and British and French also must shoulder much of the blame for destroying the future many of us thought possible in the 1960s and 1970s.
Jump forward a half-century.
What do we have here? Private spacecraft at last carrying American men and women into space. Two private ones (Orion and Dragon) and one government version (Boeing’s CST-100 is a government development and construction contract). Compared to a 1967/68 Apollo Command Module.
YES, we are back in space in a small way, and increasing. But look at what they are doing it with? Great 1950s/1960s technology, at its finest. (Yes, I know that childish and fiendishly expensive International Space Station has been there all along. “Mommy, can I go sail in the ocean?” “Yes, honey, but you have to stay in the lagoon and keep that twenty-yard tether tied to the pier, baby. But you can fly your little drone all the way to the mouth of the lagoon. If you are good.”)
(Yes I remember that we had – emphasis HAD – the monstrosity called the Space Shuttle: a hideous and incredibly expensive compromise of science, engineering, politics, and government stupidity that killed a lot of people, INCREASED the cost of getting stuff into orbit, and was (thankfully if sadly) finally euthanized. Don’t let me go on.)
The only good thing about these imitations of the Apollo Command Module is that I think they are reusable. However, their Service Modules are destroyed by fire on reentry. Supposedly, this shape is optimal for reentry. Maybe, but we don’t drive cars or operate aircraft that are “optimal” for parking or landing. Any manmade craft should be optimal for whatever we want to do with it: carry people, carry cargo, etc. Optimization, like specialization, is for losers.
Even though the private versions will be launched with reusable boosters, guess what? The NASA version (part of the SLS, Space Launch System) THROWS AWAY everything that leaves the ground carrying the CST-100. Just like 99% of US spacecraft, and including most of what was needed to get the Shuttles up and back.
And advanced technology? Don’t make me puke. The primary engines they are going to use for the SLS are the SAME engines as the Space Shuttle used: 1970s technology. BUT they aren’t going to reuse them like they did on the Shuttles: “not cost effective.” They get thrown away. (Or maybe “recycled.”)
Meanwhile, the Russians and Chinese continue to use one-time, no-reuse, no-recycling systems that are basically 1950s technology – little different in concept from what that brave man Yuri Gagarin rode to space THREE GENERATIONS AGO. Even the SPANISH EMPIRE didn’t use copies of Chris Columbus’ ships to conquer the New World. (And by 1552, 60 years after Chris’s first trip in 1492, the Spanish had visited and occupied about 60% of the two continents!)
It is this throwaway attitude that directly led to the weekend panic over the uncontrolled reentry of a 24-ton booster. And the reason another 19 similar flights are needed, throwing away billions of dollars of high technology so the Chinese can build another space station. (Sadly, giving the planet a grand total of TWO.)
Of course, the Brits and French (and Germans and Japanese) have done absolutely ZIP. No Moonraker, not even an Amerika (Bomber) Orbiter.
Now consider this.
Obviously, that is an artist’s concept, but is closer to what was visualized and expected fifty years ago. The next one is even closer.
Private business – even with government contracts, I admit – is doing what governments have failed to do. Yes, sometimes those private spacecraft blow up on the ground or fail and crash land. But THAT is the price of progress, and anathema to government risk managers and politicians.
Why? Because governments are STUPID – and the purpose of the NASA (and other space agencies? First, welfare – using stolen money to pay off vast bureaucracies, government contractors, and local politicians. Second, national pride. Third, military applications. Everything else is an excuse for those things.
And that is why, at least to some degree, government agencies and politicians do NOT want private manned spaceflight and private ventures in space – especially but not limited to low-earth orbit – to fail.
Because in space, as everywhere else, governments STINK.